Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones have been involved in the theatre of war for the last few years. The Obama administration, in particular, has been keen on drones as opposed to putting boots on the ground due to the huge cost savings and less political damage since fewer soldiers go back home in caskets.
While drones have been successful on the battlefront, pundits contend that their real success will be witnessed in non-military applications. This is an area that has attracted growing interest from a number of commercial entities. Africa, in particular, can benefit immensely from non-military use of drones. The following are a few areas to watch.
African nations face several security challenges. For example, policing large swathes of unpopulated areas has always presented a challenge for law enforcement in Africa. These areas are used as smuggling routes and criminal hideouts especially in North Africa and East Africa. In Niger, the government has been fighting a losing battle with drugs and arms traffickers. For years, arms smugglers from Libya have transited through the vast desert to smuggle weapons to the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria. Niger is now home to the latest deployment of US drones. In collaboration with the Niger government, the US government recently deployed two unarmed MQ9 reaper drones to keep Niger's remote areas under surveillance. The drones are fitted with high resolution cameras and sensors which allow law enforcement to track illegal activity on the ground and deploy forces to intercept. Given the large swatches of sparsely populated areas in Africa where criminals run amok, one can see how drones are likely to be deployed for law enforcement on a wider scale in the near future.
Until recently, the use of drones for conservation has been limited by cost and range. However, with larger orders of UAV's, manufacturers are now enjoying economies of scale and prices have come down considerably. The technology has also improved giving drones greater range and flight time. The Rhino and Elephant populations in Africa continue to dwindle as a result of poaching. In East Africa, it has been confirmed that trafficking in ivory is the new source of income for Al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab. Drones can help stem the loss of endangered species by making it easier and more cost effective for conservation authorities to survey wildlife, monitor and map terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and support the enforcement of protected areas.
Agriculture continues to be the mainstay of most African economies. In the future, drones can be expected to be put to use scouting and mapping agricultural land as well as aerial spraying crops. The result could be cheaper farm produce at shops and stalls in Africa in addition to improving the overall food security situation on the continent.
In the past we have written about the initiatives that private companies and governments across Africa are taking to increase Internet usage
. Drones are set to revolutionize how people in remote parts of the world access the Internet. Facebook, through Internet.org, is working on ways to beam Internet connectivity to people in the third world via drones. It is envisaged that solar powered high altitude planes with the capability to stay aloft for several months will provide reliable Internet access to remote locations.
Twenty percent of children worldwide do not receive even the most basic vaccines. As a result, about 1.5 million children die annually from vaccine-preventable illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea. Thousands more suffer from severe sickness.
Unreliable transportation systems in Africa make it difficult to deliver lifesaving vaccines in time. In response to this situation, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is funding drone technology to deliver vaccines cheaply to remote locations in Africa. The drones will be deployed remotely by health workers. Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Division won the project and are currently working to realize this bold idea.
One of the challenges of deploying this new technology in Africa has been the fear of what would happen if criminals or worse, terrorists, hijacked a drone or got access to drone technology. In one of the latest seasons on a popular American TV series, 24, an al-Qaida cell manages to remotely take control of a fleet of American drones armed with deadly weapons. In the ensuing chaos, a hospital in London is destroyed as well as several other buildings and cars. The terrorists are eventually defeated but not before they rain wanton distraction on the city of London. Popular shows like this don't do much to instill confidence in the hearts of minds of policy makers and citizens. Recently, in Kenya, the government banned the use of privately owned drones in the fight against poaching. This was informed by security concerns.
Despite these genuine security concerns, there is no arguing that there is a greater good in allowing and encouraging private use of drones provided there is a proper framework to guarantee legal use.